A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Monday, February 15, 2010

Poem of the Day: Percy Bysshe Shelley

Ode to the West Wind 

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being, 
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead 
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing, 

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red, 
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou, 
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed 

The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until 
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow 

Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill 
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air) 
With living hues and odours plain and hill: 

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere; 
Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear! 

Thou on whose stream, mid the steep sky's commotion, 
Loose clouds like earth's decaying leaves are shed, 
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean, 

Angels of rain and lightning; there are spread 
On the blue surface of thine aëry surge, 
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head 

Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge 
Of the horizon to the zenith's height, 
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge 

Of the dying year, to which this closing night 
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre, 
Vaulted with all thy congregated might 

Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere 
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh, hear! 

Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams 
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay, 
Lulled by the coil of his crystàlline streams, 

Beside a pumice isle in Baiae's bay, 
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers 
Quivering within the wave's intenser day, 

All overgrown with azure  moss and flowers 
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou 
For whose path the Atlantic's level powers 

Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below 
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear 
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know 

Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear, 
And tremble and despoil themselves: oh, hear! 

If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear; 
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee; 
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share 

The impulse of thy strength, only less free 
Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even 
I were as in my boyhood, and could be 

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven, 
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed 
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne'er have striven 

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need. 
Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud! 
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed! 

A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed 
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud. 

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is: 
What if my leaves are falling like its own! 
The tumult of thy might harmonies 

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone, 
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce, 
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one! 

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe 
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth! 
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth 
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind! 
Be through my lips to unawakened earth 

The trumpet of a prophecy! O, Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? 
--Percy Bysshe Shelley 

People have trouble with Shelley. Partly it's that his revolutionary attitudes seem to us naive, partly that his verse is more rhetorical and less sharply focused in its imagery than his contemporary Keats's. But mostly, I think, it's his name. A line like "I shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstasy!" from the "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" sounds like something a guy named Percy Bysshe Shelley would do. 

It's too bad about the name Percy, and woe betide the kid whose parents are so cruel as to name him that. (Not that there are many of them; the name peaked in the 1890s and now is virtually nonexistent. I actually had an uncle named Percy, who was born back when it was still popular, but the only other Percys I can think of are Percy Sutton, the former Manhattan borough president, and Percy Kilbride, who played Pa Kettle opposite Marjorie Main's Ma in B-pictures of the 1940s.) 

But Percy Shelley was no pantywaist (neither were Sutton, Kilbride and my uncle for that matter). Nor was he what Matthew Arnold called him, a “beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.” Arnold's attempt to emasculate Shelley probably stemmed, ironically, from that eminent Victorian's shock at Shelley's revolutionary attitudes toward things like marriage and sex. 

Anyway, the "Ode to the West Wind" is one of my half-dozen favorite lyric poems, and I think it has a sweep and power that rivals Shakespeare and Milton. So there. It's also one of those poems that, like Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," has a clear five-act structure: 

Exposition: The autumnal west wind has arrived to scatter dead leaves but also the seeds that will reawaken in the Spring.
Conflict: The destroyer role of the wind seems to predominate over that of the preserver. 
Crisis: Is it possible that only destruction will prevail? 
Struggle: The speaker recognizes that his fear of the wind's power echoes his own loss of hope in the possibility of spiritual and social change and renewal. 
Resolution: The speaker regains faith that renewal will occur, that Spring will follow Winter, and that his words and ideas will spread and take hold. 

But of course it's not just a didactic poem. It's also a brilliant use of terza rima, the meter of Dante's Divina Commedia, which is also about death and rebirth. Shelley is not a hard-edged imagist like Keats. His verse depends on the reader's ability to hold all its elements -- imagery, sound, symbolism, dramatic tension -- in the mind at once. There are few more beautiful stanzas in English than the middle section of the poem, with its evocation of an underwater world that is touched by the wind's power, but it doesn't stand alone. And while I understand the objection that "I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!" is a little too melodramatic, a little too much like "I shrieked and clasped my hands in ecstasy," I argue that it works in context, that it's a dramatic turn that precipitates the reconciliation in the last stanza. 

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